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Steve Aschburner

Lawrence Frank and Doc Rivers
Former Nets coach Lawrence Frank, here before a game in 2007, is now one of Doc Rivers' assistants.
Steve Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Former head men slide down bench to be ready for next gig

Posted Aug 24 2010 1:05PM

Overqualified. That's the word most of us would hear. Intended as a semi-complimentary rejection, it would give the hiring boss wiggle room in the uncomfortable act of saying no.

Overqualified. As in, you've already advanced beyond this position in your career. This would represent a step down. The salary is lower. The responsibilities and authority are less. You might not be very happy going backward and, let's face it, there's a good chance you would leave if the position for which you are qualified came open elsewhere.

By that thinking, there are 24 gentlemen in the NBA who are overqualified for their jobs. Once head coaches in the league -- the equivalent of manning the corner-office in their chosen profession -- they now are back in cubicles as assistants coaches.

Taking a seat
Current NBA assistants who were once head coaches (with former team).
Lawrence Frank Boston 225-241 (Nets)
Herb Brown Charlotte 72-74 (Pistons)
Dwane Casey Dallas 53-69 (Wolves)
Terry Stotts Dallas 115-168 (Hawks, Bucks)
Brian Hill Detroit 292-315 (Magic, Grizzlies)
Keith Smart Golden State 9-31 (Cavs)
Marc Iavaroni L.A. Clippers 33-90 (Grizzlies)
Frank Hamblen L.A. Lakers 33-71 (Bucks, Lakers)
Jim Cleamons L.A. Lakers 28-70 (Mavs)
Johnny Davis Memphis 73-146 (76ers, Magic, Grizzlies)
Ron Rothstein Miami 97-231 (Heat, Pistons)
Jim Boylan Milwaukee 24-32 (Bulls)
Reggie Theus Minnesota 44-62 (Kings)
Dave Wohl Minnesota 65-114 (Nets)
Sam Mitchell New Jersey 158-169 (Raptors)
Larry Krystkowiak New Jersey 31-69 (Bucks)
Tim Floyd New Orleans 90-231 (Bulls, Hornets)
Mo Cheeks Okla. City 284-286 (Blazers, 76ers)
Brendan Malone Orlando 29-71 (Raptors, Cavs)
Michael Curry Philadelphia 39-43 (Pistons)
Bill Cartwright Phoenix 51-100 (Bulls)
Bernie Bickerstaff Portland 414-512 (Sonics, Nuggets, Wizards, Bobcats)
Phil Johnson Utah 236-306 (Kings, Bulls)
Randy Wittman Washington 100-207 (Cavs, Wolves)

On somebody else's staff. Suggesting again instead of deciding. Making six figures, sure, which is great, but not seven.

Once an assistant, again an assistant. And apparently, one can go home again in that field.

Well, some can.

"You have to have the personality to do that," one of the 24 told me Monday. "There are guys who have been head coaches who are never going to be assistant coaches again. It's better that you're not, if you feel that way. You have to be willing to get back into the the trenches."

Lawrence Frank will be back in the trenches this season in the Atlantic Division, going from worst (0-16 in what quickly became his final season as New Jersey Nets head coach) to first (lead assistant on Doc Rivers' staff in Boston). In replacing Tom Thibodeau -- finally getting his shot as a head coach in Chicago after two decades as a trusty NBA coaching sidekick -- Frank faced options that included a studio analyst's job with NBA TV or sitting out the 2010-11 season entirely. He chose the trenches, as did Sam Mitchell with New Jersey, Michael Curry with Philadelphia and Marc Iavaroni with the Clippers, former head coaches all.

"I wanted to get back and coach and I didn't want to sit and wait, and you can't ask for a better situation or a better organization," Frank was quoted in the Newark Star Ledger. "At some point, I'd like an opportunity to be head coach again, but having done it I have a greater appreciation for the things assistants do. You know, the things that make it easier for the head guy."

Oh, if only they'd had that when they were the head guys: Nothing went very easy for the 24 former head coaches -- the defrocked double dozen, if you will -- during their time at the top. Not one of them exited the job with more victories than defeats. itchell, joining Avery Johnson's new staff in New Jersey after sitting out last season, was Coach of the Year in 2006-07 with Toronto. Phil Johnson, riding shotgun to Jerry Sloan in Utah, won that award back in 1975 with Kansas City/Omaha. Brian Hill, at John Kuester's side in Detroit, steered the Orlando Magic to the 1995 Finals. But even those three are sub-.500 overall -- Mitchell was 156-189, Johnson 236-306, Hill 292-315 -- and as a group, things look even worse.

Collectively, the 24 former head coaches who will start this season one or two seats over on NBA benches have a record of 2,599-3,728, a .411 winning percentage. Subtract the three men whose tastes of the top were only interim -- Frank Hamblen (Bucks, Lakers), Jim Boylan (Bulls) and Keith Smart (Cavaliers) -- and the 21 who actually had contracts, press conferences, aspirations and their own training camps along the way were a barely better .413 (2,533-3,594).

Which, someone might suggest, is why they're assistant coaches now rather than head coaches.

Maybe a little downward trajectory can be a good thing. While Frank's experience with the Nets might make him a better assistant, it also might make him a better candidate for future head coaching vacancies (including right there in Boston, should Rivers opt for his much-discussed sabbatical in 2011-12). Some of the 24 are easing toward retirement, happy to be around something they love -- while earning paychecks that dwarf yours and mine and traveling in first-class comfort to the continent's niftiest cities and poshest hotels. Not bad, huh?

Yet many of the 24 are regrouping, licking old wounds and staying relevant and connected for a second (or third) chance to snag a head coaching job. One might be a mere 10-game losing streak away.

There's nothing wrong with that, as long as the fellow you're working next to doesn't think you covet his job.

"I've seen coaches who won't hire an assistant who has head coaching experience because they don't want to deal with that threat," another of the 24 told me. "Other guys want assistants who have sat in that chair and gone through the same fires you have.

"In this league, your position is tenuous at best. What it boils down to is, you want a staff you trust. At some point in every season, a staff is going to get tested and you have to have a unified front. For the assistants, that means you have to remember that you're not the head coach. You can have your ideas and your opinions, but the head coach is deciding in the end."

That's where the egos that all these guys have can pose a problem. Even the most loyal assistant might overstep his bounds in the heat of a moment if he recalls something from his boss days that worked -- and overreaches to inject it. Someone less than loyal might look like a usurper. Or be mistaken for one.

"If you're coaching with a pure heart, it's easy," another former head coach-turned-assistant said. "You have been through what the head coach is going through, and you are not just going to throw [manure] at him. He has enough to worry about. The hardest part is understanding and accepting the final call is not yours. So when you walk out of the meeting, you are on the same page. Agree, disagree and then align."

Never forget, either, that there are advantages to being no higher than second or third in command. Assistant coaches get many of the perks, with few of the burdens of the top job. They have a lot more "basketball" in their positions than the guy who has to deal with the media, attend the VIP luncheons and oversee all 15 players and a staff. Assistants do a lot more hands-on work with players in practice, and never take the blame for yanking someone on game night.

The old Peter Principle can apply, too -- certain fellows never should have been boosted to that top step. Some guys are just better at, and enjoy, playing the "mother confessor" role so common in player-assistant relationships. Others thrive as their team's "bad cop" if the head coach stakes out the "good cop" ground to lessen confrontations.

Employment opportunities are somewhat better -- there are only 30 NBA head coaching positons but about 120 or so assistants' jobs. And as a way to stay ready and visible and polished for the next top job that opens up ... well, there are only so many TV gigs to go around.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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